CORRICK’S RIVER BEND — Alec Underwood accidentally hooked one of the biggest justifications for passing the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act as he floated by Belmont Creek last week.

A 21-inch bull trout snatched the artificial hopper he’d tied to his tippet in hopes of hitting a cutthroat. The Montana Wildlife Federation conservation associate got the raft to shore, jumped in the water and quickly unhooked the fish. It torpedoed back into the cooler depths of the channel.

Without those cold waters, and without those tributary streams, the Blackfoot River would hold no bull trout. As is, the fish known as the grizzly bear of the trout world faces the same challenge as its land-based predatory kin — near extinction due to loss of living space. Anglers must release any bulls they catch, unharmed.

In hopes that one day bull trout might be legal game fish in the Blackfoot again, Underwood and a flotilla of fellow advocates want to build support for the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. The bill offered by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, would add about 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Mission Mountain and Scapegoat wilderness areas.

“This guy’s a testimony to why we protect those headwater streams,” Underwood said, still shaking his head at the lunker he let go. “Monture Creek, the North Fork of the Blackfoot, the Clearwater all have extremely high fishery value. They’re spawning factories.”

Those waters have also gathered an eclectic range of supporters. Loren Rose of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Ted Brewer of The Montana Wilderness Association, Seeley Lake Elementary School Superintendent Chris Stout, Ovando businesswoman Kathy Schoendoerfer, and Blackfoot River property owner Jerry O’Connell joined an equally motley crew of reporters on a float with author Norman Maclean’s grandson, Noah Snyder, over about 4 miles between Corrick’s River Bend and Whitaker Bridge fishing access sites.

That scenic reach fills nearly one-sixth of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” including Norman’s last day of fishing with his brother Paul and father John. The book, and subsequent movie starring a young Brad Pitt, helped launch Montana’s fly-fishing reputation.

Beneath the cliff walls of Red Rocks beach, Maclean's grandson made his own impassioned plea for the legislation.

“It’s easy to feel a sense of insignificance in the giant scheme of things,” Snyder said. “But your significance in this human time is very real. My family has been spending summers here for 100 years. It reminds us of our small piece of time we have together. Those words and rocks and feelings and stories are all one in the land here. It’s important that these places stay available.”

Tester’s bill has its critics. Some groups, including the Montana Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch, object to the inclusion of a 2,200-acre recreation area allowing winter access for snowmobiles and an adjacent 3,800-acre chunk designated for mountain bike use. Citizens for Balanced Use attacked those same areas because of limitations on timber harvest, road-building and mining as well as being “not areas of desired snowmobile use because of their low altitude and limited snowfall.”

In response, last week’s group pointed to the depth of local support for the bill. Ovando rancher and Blackfoot Challenge founding member Jim Stone recalled how the group’s “80-20 Rule” guided early talks about the landscape in 2005.

“In this valley, we really work on that 80 percent where we can all come together,” Stone said. “It’s not just about ranching. It’s about all the businesses behind us that have to make a living here. Whether you’re a cattle guy or a fisherman, we can all survive when we pull together. And that’s how we get legislation done — by coming together from the ground up.”

Addrien Marx backed that up from a business perspective. The recently retired owner of Rovero’s Hardware and gas station in Seeley Lake said adding wilderness mattered even to those who couldn’t reach the remote headwaters.

“Our business would not survive without every spoke in the wheel,” Marx said. “We need timber trucks to drive up and fuel and their drivers to buy a pizza. We need the out-of-state VW bus to spill out a bunch of kids who come in and use the restroom and buy treats. We need wilderness advocates and snowmobilers to buy their last snacks before they go out there. And I think we can do that without losing our town’s personality, or its core values or its landscape.”

Pyramid Mountain Lumber President Loren Rose said his company was backing the bill after previous congressional efforts provided more timber jobs but couldn’t pass wilderness additions.

“We got more out of this relationship on the front end,” Rose said. “Managing those roaded areas was important. Now we’re trying to tie up the loose ends.”

“The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association helped us get (stewardship contracting) legislation passed, and most of that work has been done now,” Rose said. “With help from our other senator (Steve Daines) and congressman (Greg Gianforte) we can get something done here.”

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